I was working in Abu Dhabi in March, when COVID-19 began spreading in the United Arab Emirates. Even before the cases hit the hundreds, the combination of both my workplace and the country’s policies resulted in a work from home order. Like many of us, I naïvely assumed it was going to be a temporary situation, for a month at worst.
This peace of mind took a turn when the Emirate of Abu Dhabi imposed two stricter COVID-19 regulations: all planes were grounded and a mandatory curfew was instated. The curfew was imposed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., except for emergencies or for people with government permits. Movement during the day was restricted as well. Strict regulations were enforced in public, and most places, except essential places such as hospitals and supermarkets, were closed.
My only outings were to buy groceries twice a month, a swift affair because of both COVID-19 paranoia and the discomfort of wearing a mask and gloves – a sentiment shared by many.
The curfew was extended to 10 p.m. during Ramadan before it ended on June 25. When it was lifted, online forums went wild. It was as if the whole Emirate let out a big sigh of relief. Since then, public places have slowly reopened while observing strict COVID-19 protocols.
One thing that hasn’t really changed is the Abu Dhabi “lockdown”. Since June 2, no one has been allowed to go in or out of Abu Dhabi without a permit. Eventually, the rules softened, requiring only a negative COVID-19 test upon entering Abu Dhabi. The most recent revision requires three COVID-19 tests: one on the border, one on the fourth day in the city and one on the eighth day.
Eight months into the pandemic, I’ve had the luxury of learning from and living in a reality that benefits from strong top-down governance. Consistency and clarity truly are key. The government of the Abu Dhabi opted for a swift approach and has taken the pandemic seriously since the very beginning. Not once was there a statement that undermined virus containment efforts. Statements from leaders of the Emirate have been firm yet comforting.
The government did not hesitate to close the country’s borders, to impose a curfew, to enforce a lockdown, even very early on when most of the world was playing down the situation. Rules were loud and clear, echoed through the government’s official social media accounts and the national press, and the government has never been shy about imposing harsh penalties on those who violate COVID-19 protocols.
After returning from abroad, residents of Abu Dhabi are required to do a 14-day quarantine with a wristband that detects their movements. While people moan about the Emirate’s lockdown, I honestly feel safe that Abu Dhabi is trying to remain “sterile”.
Each Emirate has different COVID-19 policy, and Abu Dhabi’s is one of the strictest. What initially felt like discomfort has transformed into a reassuring sense of security and safety.
There isn’t a breakdown of cases by Emirate, but I’m certain that Abu Dhabi would rank the lowest. Even national cases remain extremely low; since March the UAE has logged 528 COVID-19 deaths out of its almost 10 million people. The recovery rate stands at 95.9 percent of positive cases so far (143,000 recoveries out of 149,000 total cases), a testament to the UAE’s stellar COVID-19 response system.
While I wanted to go home to Bali, I eventually decided not to because of the situation in Indonesia. If I were to contract the virus, there would be no place I’d rather be than in Abu Dhabi, where the protocols are clear.
Murky, indecisive governance is the last thing people need during a pandemic, and containment requires strict, uniform rules, otherwise any effort to minimize cases is practically useless. Accessible COVID-19 testing and clear protocols are also pivotal for combatting the pandemic, otherwise it’s confusing and pointless.
Finally, firm repercussions for those who violate safety protocols is paramount. While a lockdown is not economically feasible in most places, regulations such as social distancing and mask wearing should be imposed strictly.
It’s futile to introduce a mask or social distancing protocol if certain people can defy the rules without any consequences. Foreigners partying in Bali or public figures with thousands of followers must follow the rules because the virus is unapologetic and indiscriminating.
In the UAE, the royal family strictly complies with the protocols, and they were among the first to volunteer for COVID-19 vaccine trials. Such gestures have successfully increased confidence in the government’s policy, and residents have willingly followed. For those who are feeling rebellious, harsh penalties and hefty fines await – leaving barely any space for disobedience.
COVID-19 is not political; it’s a matter of life and death. So far it has infected 54.2 million people and killed 1.31 million worldwide.
While it is definitely a lesson learned, it’s one learned the hard way. In Indonesia, hundreds of medical professionals have succumbed to COVID-19 because of unclear protocols and a lack of safety equipment. Had the government taken the pandemic seriously from the outset and come up with clear plans, Indonesia would not be where it is today with regard to the virus.
I’m writing this as a heartbroken Indonesian national who believes that her government could have done better. Though I’m now extremely privileged to be sheltered in the UAE, Indonesia is ultimately my home and where most of my loved ones reside.
Citizens can only do so much, and we are relying completely on the government’s measures at this moment of such uncertainty and difficulty. A strong government that is consistent and clear is needed more than ever, otherwise we are just scrambling around, clumsily undoing yesterday’s progress.
-- The writer is a public policy researcher living in the United Arab Emirates
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.